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American tennis stars earn their stripes at the 2023 US Open

Alex Sharp | September 10, 2023


Over the three weeks of the 2023 US Open, there was a glistening twinkle from the stars and stripes found all around the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

 

There's no doubt about it: American tennis is simply flourishing. Prior to the US Open, the home nation had 11 men and 13 women inside the world's Top 100. Pretty impressive. 

Furthermore, when the rankings are updated on Monday, the American flag will be next to Nos. 8, 11, 13 and 19 for the men and then Nos. 3, 5 and 11 in the women's singles charts. Also, pretty impressive.

 

But nearly every day for three weeks in Queens, there was breakthrough success or milestone moment for home fans to get excited by.

 

Coco Gauff gets the obvious shoutout. The teenager, now a Grand Slam champion, is already an icon. The 19-year-old had stars from basketball, fashion, the world of music—even Barack and Michelle Obama—come out to watch a one-of-a-kind talent prove her doubters wrong.

 

But there was no shortage of success elsewhere in the women's draw.

Coco Gauff. Photo by Simon Bruty/USTA.

Madison Keys, the 2017 finalist, continued her resurgence in New York with a rocket-fueled, semifinal showing that saw her beat three players ranked ahead of her. 

 

College tennis star Peyton Stearns, in her first full professional season, stormed into the fourth rond and stole the first set from Wimbledon champion Marketa Vondrousova. The Czech escaped in three, but the locals knew they'll be seeing plenty of Stearns for seasons to come.

 

Jessica Pegula went deep across singles, doubles and mixed, and as a bonus, will become co-ranked doubles world No. 1 alongside Gauff on Monday. They're the first all-American team since 2012 to reach the summit. 

Jessica Pegula. Photo by Darren Carroll/USTA.

Pegula is, thus, the perfect person to offer her perspective on the current landscape in American tennis. 

 

"It's nice that there are a lot of us that are doing well and that have chances to go deep here," Pegula, who guided the U.S. to glory in the mixed event United Cup in January, said. "Maybe it's this generation of players. I think we all genuinely are friends and we practice together and we still want to beat each other.

 

"I think we have kind of embraced the fact that even though we are all competing for rankings and tournaments, and even if you play each other, you're pushing each other at the same time. I think that's something that I think the guys are doing well with [Taylor] Fritz, [Tommy] Paul, [Frances] Tiafoe. You see them pushing each other and they are all going higher and higher and higher.

 

"It's a good vibe right now."

As for the men, the 20th anniversary of Andy Roddick's US Open triumph prompted a well-worn question to resurface: When will an American man next win a major?

 

Since 2003, the home hopes have been embroiled in the “Big Four” dominance, with Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray hoovering up 68 of 79 Grand Slams in that period.

 

No nation has managed to truly crack the “Big Four” code, but the current crop are demonstrating that the present and future of American men's tennis is in reliable hands.

 

Five home men were seeded for this year's draw, the most since 2004, with Taylor Fritz, Frances Tiafoe, Tommy Paul, Chris Eubanks and Sebastian Korda.  All five have thrived with second week major moves at Grand Slams in the past couple of seasons.

Just as Pegula explained, it's a tight-knit core for the men of the stars-and-stripes. (Take the second-round match between Michael Mmoh and John Isner as an example, when Eubanks and Ben Shelton were spotting in the stands for the big man's farewell.)

 

"The other American guys, those are my closest friends," US Open quarterfinalist Fritz said. "When any of us see the others having good results, it's motivating. I think they'd all say the same thing. Because if one of us does something, the others not only want to do it, too, they now believe that they can also do it because we think we're as good as each other. If he did this here, then why can't I? 

 

"I think it's kind of this progression that we've had for a while now, why we're at where we're at,” added Fritz. “Someone achieves something big, then someone else comes and wants to match him or one-up him, and it's the cycle that keeps going." 

Taylor Fritz. Photo by Garrett Ellwood/USTA.

And after a fortnight in Flushing? Let's add Shelton into the mix for good. If you missed his 2023 US Open campaign ... well, where were you?

 

The 20-year-old former University of Florida star blazed into the semifinals, only to be denied by Djokovic. The way Shelton roared back from 2-4 to force a third set tie-break created a cacophony of noise on Arthur Ashe Stadium.

 

It's a microcosm of how this contingent of players can entertain, and attract fans from all sorts of ages and backgrounds.

Ben Shelton. Photo by Simon Bruty/USTA.

On the "Roddick topic," Shelton fired back an eloquent retort.

 

"I always say that American tennis seems to be moving in a great direction, the right direction. We have guys making it deep in slams. A lot of us here, three in the quarterfinals, are pushing through not just on the men's side but the women's side too," he said. "So it's a pretty cool time to be an American in tennis.

 

"I wish I could have a ball that says when and who is going to be the American who is the first guy since Andy Roddick to win a Grand Slam, but unfortunately I don't have that."

 

But during championship weekend, the American tales of glory kept coming. Rajeev Ram chalked up a three-peat in the men's doubles alongside Joe Salisbury, the first time a duo has achieved that at the US Open since 1912-14. 

In the juniors, Katherine Hui ruled her home major without dropping a set, making for four girls' Grand Slam champions in the past three years. In the junior wheelchair ranks, American Maylee Phelps is the No. 1. The 16-year-old advanced to the singles final and also won the doubles. 

 

The strength in depth, the different backgrounds, the spectrum of personalities and on-court styles: It's a very exciting time for U.S. tennis, and the team spirit is certainly spelling out the 'United' part of the nation's name. 

 

There's plenty to be proud of for the stars and stripes. As Pegula says, it's a good vibe right now.

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